Text: Mary E. Phillips, “Section 09,” Edgar Allan Poe: The Man (1926), pp. 1597-1610


[page 1597, unnumbered:]


SUMMARY, 1809-1849

EDGAR ALLAN POE died Sunday morning, October 7, 1849. Harsh criticism of the poet promptly began Tuesday morning, October 9, by Dr. R. W. Griswold’s article signed “Ludwig,” in the New York Tribune of that date. This drastic critique and its later amplified “Memoir” of Poe were copied far and wide in home and foreign prints. In the October 13th issue of the Home Journal, N. P. Willis as “promptly” and strongly trailed the way to Poe’s defence. Willis was thus closely followed by Henry B. Hirst, in the Philadelphia October 20, 1849, Saturday Courier. Later, others came in throngs along this well-beaten path into the broad highway which gives the world-wide, open vindication-vista of Edgar Allan Poe the man.

The editor of February 10, 1906, Musical Courier notes: “There have been many hostile [cynical] critics of Poe [mostly] in America, where Puritanism was far more in evidence than literary culture.” In sequence it comes that the late Henry James, American master of English expression, voted Poe’s poems “useless verse.” But the same might he said of aeroplanes and other values concerning uses for which they were never intended, — a brilliant example being Æsop’s fabled barnyard fowl wisely preferring barley corn to gems. Dr. Griswold’s Poe “Memoir” found early, transatlantic, print-treatment of both poet and man by [page 1598:] virtue of the Scottish divine, critic and essayist, Dr. George Gilfillan, of whom an English scholar wrote:(1)teste Gilfifillau records that Poe murdered his wife to find inspiration for ‘The Raven,’ . . . if Gilfillan had read the works of his victim he would have known that realism was loathsome to the temperament of Poe, . . . but when the slanderer is abroad, he cares not how flagrant are his calumnies, especially if he speak in the cause of morality.” Had Dr. Gilfillan also known that “The Raven” inspiration was germinating m Poe’s mind from 1831, when his future wife was but nine years old, these facts would have seriously disturbed this scholarly Scotch writer for a truer point of view than his own.

A recent overseas critic characterized Poe as, “. . . a blackguard of genius impossible to whitewash.” Reasons why such action is needless are strongly stated by another able “overseas” critic(2) in: “The common fool who points to Poe as a drunkard and a sloth, forgets that he was not only devoted to his family, but produced a greater sum of admirable work in sixteen years than any octogenarian in America. The most proved against Poe is, that wine had an instant and perverse effect upon hull. . . . Though the squalor of penury and magazines gave him neither ‘ancestral hall nor moss-grown abbey’ he lived and died enclosed within the impregnable castle of his mind.”

The Hon. R. M. Hogg, Irvine, Scotland, writes that “Alexander Smith, of Kilmarnock, Dundonald parents, and Galt family intimacies there, also author of ‘Dreamthorpe and Other Poems’ — in the prefatory essay of his edition of Howe’s ‘Golden Leaves from [page 1599:] American Poets’ — stated: ‘Poe was a blackguard of genius.’ Sir W. Robertson Nicoll, in March 29, 1917, British Weekly, quoted this phrase with seeming approval and like additions when commenting on ’ Poe’s Helen’ by Miss Caroline Ticknor.”

Scholarly William C. Brownell(3) wrote of Poe “There is no more effective way of realizing Poe’s genius than by imagining American literature without him. He is the solitary artist of our elder literature. Color, rhythm, space, strangeness are his realisms. Poe’s art was unalloyed.” Yet curiously enough, Mr. Brownell adds: “it is idle to endeavor to make a great writer of Poe, because whatever his merits, his writings lack elements of great, real literature. The Poe cult is not in the interest of literature, since as literature his writings are valueless.” To sustain this dictum Mr. Brownell proceeds, at one fell stroke, to demolish foreign and posterity’s favorable estimates of Poe: but resplendent from this débris rise the literary shades of Emerson, Henry James and others, acclaimed by their sponsor in letters, Mr. Brownell. It would be interesting to know how Justitia Posterity may strike this balance one hundred years hence. Of Poe’s creative force, at least, she may agree with Dr. Barrett Wendell, who wrote: “The utterance of Poe is as incontestably, as triumphantly itself as the note of a song bird.”

The Rev. Warren H. Cudworth,(4) East Boston, Mass., assured Mr. William r. Gill, most emphatically, “that Poe was not a drunkard. Why, I, the most innocent of divinity students . . . [in 1847] while walking with Poe, and feeling thirsty, pressed him to [page 1600:] take a glass of wine with me. He declined, but finally compromised by taking a glass of ale. . . . Almost instantly a great change came over him . . . he became as if paralyzed, and with compressed lips and fixed, glaring eyes, returned, without uttering a word, to the house which we were visiting. For hours, the strange spell hung over him. He seemed . . . as if stricken by some peculiar phase of insanity.” A longtime Richmond friend of Poe said: “He resisted more temptations in a day than most men do in a year.” Hypersensitive nerve heritage marked Poe as abnormally susceptible to all stimulants; and stranded in such shallows by the effects of mental shocks on his physique from the age of fifteen, this nervous malady grew with years and progressive results into spells of depression. These terminated in total unconsciousness of word or acts when Poe was under the added sway of stimulants taken for relief they failed to give, or social bearings. This result seems definitely affirmed by scientific dictum — in the “unconscious turn to stimulants for relief.” Consequences on this score should absolve such victims from responsibility in breaking, all the Ten Commandments. The late R. A. Douglass-Lithgow, M.D., LL.D., Boston, stated Poe’s case as: “Nervous irritability, prostration and despondency, occasioned by malnutrition and exhausted nerve centers.” These were laid in the poet’s cradle. This physical disability to withstand effects of stimulants ostracised Poe from associates of his class and callings in the life of his day. Harshly, he realized that “Fellowship is Heaven; and the lack of it is Hell!” as wrote F. Waller Allan, of Sewanee, Tenn. The distinguished [page 1601:] Boston nerve specialist, Dr. Edward B. Lane, states: “Under such depressions Poe could no more resist turning to stimulants for relief than he could change the color of his eyes.”

With no indulgence of mawkish sentimentalism, the foregoing statements seem to throw a strong commonsense light on Poe’s own pathetic account of his case which he, himself, never so understood; and this fact created his conscience stories, and also caused his various comments on “weak will.” His own words were: “I have absolutely no pleasure in stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge, . . . It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have perilled life and reputation — and reason. It has been in the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories — memories of wrong and injustice and imputed dishonor, [and to shield that of his lady-vampire tormentors] from the sense of unsupportable loneliness, [Poe was instinctively social] and a dread of some strange, impending doom.” Undoubtedly Poe feared nerve-strain, possible results, in the horrors of his “Haunted Palace.” These he escaped! But, as a thrilling note, this cry of a soul’s anguish will ring down the corridors of all Time, with fainting echoes melting into the music of all Beauty beyond. This is the enshrined Beauty of Perfection of which the poet sang.

Blending several ideas concerning Poe’s Centenary — January 19, 1909 — will give: that it was shared by his native land with England, France, Germany and other countries. That there never was a reason why this rare genius should have been marked for ostracism in any land, while posterity lavished honors on scores [page 1602:] who, if judged by moral standards only, must have been consigned to oblivion. Of the Old Law, David’s “Psalms” — though he was a murderer and a ravisher — find place in Holy Writ. Of the New Gospel, one who denied his Master thrice, stands high in Christian ritual. Horace is a household word among scholars, though his addiction to Valerian was no less than his delight in the tangles of Neæra’s hair. Dryden sold his rich rhymes and prose lines to the service of a cruel, corrupt monarch. Sterne and Dick Steele wrote beautifully and lived vilely. Lovable, most lovable Charles Lamb, fell victim to the drop too much. Byron was a libertine; Shelley despised all social laws. So the records run awry as to Sappho, Aspasia, Madame de Staël, George Sand, and still later others: all, in some ways, set at defiance the ordinances of God and man. Poor Bobbie Burns pathetically plead that his struggling spirit should be credited with what the weak flesh had resisted. Perhaps if we knew all, the balance would be struck most forcefully in favor of those tortured souls who could not be stripped of lofty aspirations by the demons that beset them. But why should Poe’s memory be placed in posterity’s pillory while such as these, who joined to their tongues of fire far greater mortal infirmities, nevertheless are accorded foremost niches in the Valhalla of this world’s immortals?

The literary records of Edgar Allan Poe have been too ably and frequently treated for one of no importance to venture much on such scores, excepting to call attention to a few expressions made of their writer by some of the eminent in the world of letters. Dr. C. Alphonso Smith believes it is impossible to [page 1603:] localize Poe; emphasizes the poet’s “totality of effect,” and centres his vital force in Poe’s own words: “How shall I produce the maximum of effect with the minimum of means?”

Roger G. Lewis, Esq., New York City, marks Poe’s natural, or instinctively international, force by: “During a residence abroad I took Poe with me. In Japan an apt story-teller can instantly gather and hold a crowd. Whenever I repeated stories of ‘The Raven,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Gold-Bug,’ my auditors clamored for more. While Irving and ‘Robinson Crusoe’ are well known there, the type of Poe’s mysticism seemed more real to them. Indeed I doubt if I succeeded in convincing them that his stories were fiction, ‘No,’ they would say, ‘all that is perfectly natural. It happened many times, only your honorable Mr. Poe told it better than any one else.’ In many parts of China, as the summer shades of night approach, old men of the village seat themselves by the highway and tell stories to the people. I listened With intense interest. Finally I tried Poe in several gatherings, and he always made me popular. No one contradicted me or seemed to doubt. To them he was perfectly natural. But they called me an ‘honorable beautiful liar,’ when I described the high buildings in New York City.”

Why the “Oriental understood Poe’s mysticism better. than nine-tenths of Americans” seems clearly explained by:(5) “A volume of poems translated from the Chinese by Dr. William A. P. Martin, and recently [1894] issued by Kelly & Walsh of Shanghai, China, contains a Chinese poem, said to be [over] 2000 years [page 1604:] old, and entitled ‘The Raven, or the Bird of Fate.’ It bears such remarkable resemblance in thought and expression to Poe’s ‘Raven’ that the translator would fain charge Poe with plagiarism were it in the slightest degree possible that the American poet knew aught of it.” To prove that no unconscious influence of Poe’s versification of “The Raven” has altered the argument of the Chinese poem, Dr. Martin has given the original in Chinese characters — for those who can read them — a prose translation for others, and of the two poems this analogy:

1.  The poet’s state of mental depression bordering on despair.

2.  His resort to books for relief before or after the appearance of the unwelcome visitor.

3.  The insolent familiarity of the intruder.

4.  The recognition of the bird as boding evil.

5.  A direct appeal to the bird for an explanation of the mystery.

6.  The bird’s reply in one melancholy ejaculation.

7.  Finally, . . . the interpretation of that response by each poet to suit his own case.

This 1894 translated Chinese poem, inaccessible to Poe, with the above noted similarities, simply proves that the same poetic idea can be borne by two or more persons centuries apart as well as in the same period of time — as instanced by “The Haunted Palace,” by Poe, and “The Beleagured City,” by Longfellow, yet they never met face to face. This almost identical thread of thought expression can be made by those wholly unknown to each other, and, in this instance, throws the shadows of Oriental mysticism over the genius of Edgar Allan Poe. [page 1605:]

Since the late 1830’s Poe has ever been named the “beloved Solitary One” in Russia. Mr. Lewis continues: “In Siberia I was puzzled by the contradictions I met in the composite character there: much joy, recklessness; but over all this, hung a certain deep, Gothic sadness. I tried every means of breaking into the circle, but something indefinable told me I was outside. One winter night as we lay in our robes of skins about a great Russian stove in a log house towards the Northern rim of Siberia, the winds soughing through the pines and firs, and cries of howling wolves moved me to story-telling. I opened with my favorite Poe. That began my entry into the Russian soul. Entering I discovered that Poe was a most complete type of Gothic sadness. The Germans very quickly showed me that they thought, only by birth, Poe be longed to America. In France, I grew to believe ‘The Bells’ to be a purely French poem, a much better one in that language than in ours. [The Spanish novelist, Vincent Blasco Ibanez, stated: “Poe is my spiritual and literary father. His name is as famous in Europe as Lincoln’s.”] And, in London, John A. T. Floyd — the well-known writer on Russian literature — spent hours trying to show me that Poe is our one master literary spirit — in fact, placed us on the literary map of the world and anchored its there. I was almost shown! An Englishman, who knew most of the South African dialects, and I were sitting, under a bright moon, in a forest surrounded by our host — a black tribal chief — and his subjects. Vainly I tried to get them to imagine the glories of White Lands. They nodded — ‘nearly napping‘: — then I tried my favorite [page 1606:] Poe stories. At once, they were alive. They knew apes and birds of ill-omen, and they kept me at it for two hours. When at last I gave out, the old chief said, — ‘That was a great White Chief and mighty Witch-doctor!’ Our host was grieved to learn, that while we think Poe a great chief, we have not erected a large fetich house for him. Now, you know why I view Poe as a world-genius, belonging to no one part of it, but flashing or brooding over it all.”

Thus is recognition of “The prophet of silence and seclusion blown to the four winds of Heaven,” wrote Dr. Charles Whibley.

From Louis Weinberg comes: “The orchestra seemed too small for symphonies in the ear of Beethoven; marble too cold for the visions of Angelo, and words too definite for the moods of Poe.” Victor Hugo described him as “the prince of American literature,” and Sir Edwin Arnold held our poet to be “America’s finest lyric artist.” In the London Eclectic Review, September, 1853, appeared, “Every one of Poe’s small poems is as complete and full of light as a gem — either the tearful light of sorrow, or the gleam from a dream of the past.”

Some ideas briefed from an able Philadelphia press-editorial follow several words from the Preface of Poe’s “Eureka,” “To the few who love me,” — When Alfred Tennyson said that the only thing he wished to see in America was the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, and another English scholar crossed the Atlantic to place a wreath upon that simple tomb in Westminster Churchyard, Baltimore, Md., and Swinburne wrote: “The fame of Poe grows wider and [page 1608:] strikes deeper as time advances,” they were merely forerunners of many pilgrims whose tributes will prove that patience is all that is needed for Time to set all wrongs right.

The Poe Centenary Celebration(6) — throughout our land — was no honor to that heir of all the ages, but simply the “Country’s apology for its crudity and cruelty while the poet lived. Whenever a saint is made there always must be a devil’s advocate. Poe held by right the title of the master of masters, — the one American known, studied and honored in Moscow, Spain, Paris, London and Berlin. Dickens bowed to him — Rossetti gladly declared Poe gave to him his ‘Blessed Damosel.’ Mark Twain said, — ‘Poe is remembered after a hundred years. That is fame enough for any man, and testifies to the height and depth of his genius.’ [Walt Whitman wrote of Poe: “By final judgment he must be classed with the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling.”] George Bernard Shaw declares of Poe in America: ‘How did he live there, this finest of finest artists; this born aristocrat of letters? Alas, he did not live there; he died there and was duly explained away as a drunkard!’ His centenary is only the beginning of the honoring of him who was our human Israfel, whose heart-strings are a lute and who has the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures.

‘His was the voice of beauty and of woe.

Pure as the mountains of perpetual snow —

Wild as the tempest of the upper sky —

Sweet as the faint, far-off celestial tone

Of angel whispers, fluttering from on high,

And tender as love’s tear, when youth and beauty die.’ ” [page 1610:]

Poe never earned a money-mite but by his pen. Yet the supreme triumph of the poet’s life stands forth “answered and secure,” in the words of Dr. William P. Trent, of New York City, who proclaimed — the consensus of opinion of the world’s highest literary tribunals — that Edgar Allan Poe is







[S:0 - EAPTM, 1926] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. Poe: The Man (M. E. Phillips) (Section 09)